I’ve long thought that South Africa, Russia and the U.S. are probably the most intriguing countries in the world. It is true. For reasons of size and complexity and history and promise and some disappointments along the way as well.
It is 7:30pm in St. Petersburg and the hours since midnight have been interesting to say the least. Starting at about 12:30am when I was roused out of a sound sleep, after having been interrupted by numerous stops and the border passport check, by my brand-new compartment mate, a stocky middle age Russian guy with an old fashioned crew cut whose deodorant had worn off during the course of the day and who, it turns out, snores loudly. Now that could describe most of the men and many of the women of the world by the end of any long day. It’s just that if I did ever have to share a tiny train compartment I was hoping it would be with a tiny odor-free, sound-free person. But you know, after the initial annoyance of having someone intrude into my space, I fell asleep at least for periods of time when the clickity-clack drowned out the gasping, and grunting, and snuffling, and snorting from the next bed. In the morning we smiled at each other and he carried my heaviest bag out of the train for me. Maybe I remember getting even less satisfaction out of a night or two with a close-to-strange man in my life but why go there. I’m in St. Petersburg, Russia and life is good.
Checked into my hotel which turns out to be the most boring, most expensive, but also the most comfortable to date. My hotel choices have been odd, interesting and cheap heretofore. The Petro Palace is a standard upper middle business and tourist hotel, little charm but great service. I’m justifying the cost by saying it doesn’t hurt to have one stress-free stay right in the middle of the trip; I even had some laundry done for about $20.
Took a taxi to the hotel this morning and arrived about 8am so sampled the huge breakfast buffet, forced myself to eat a bit of egg, meat, veggies and fruit. I really do not like to eat breakfast but I must stay healthy for these three weeks before I return home to my normal diet of instant grits and Ben & Jerry’s Cinnabon ice cream.
Showered and then my very newest best friends, Sergei and Alex, the guides, picked me up for a day of palaces. And talk of history. And talk of politics. And talk of the pleasures of a sunny summer day.
First to Pavlovsk Palace, home of Catherine the Great’s son and family. Here’s one website you can check out if my photos move you in that direction. http://www.saint-petersburg.com/pavlovsk/pavlovsk-palace.asp
Secondly the most incredibly gaudy beautiful shining lovely palace I’ve seen…better than Versailles even—Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. She was a real power in the world, much like Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, and a most interesting woman because of and in spite of that power. I highly recommend Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great which is the book that made me so anxious to see this place of great beauty and significance in Russian history. Why would I say more when there’s so much information for you out there in Google Land?
What is so amazing about these palaces is that they were outside of the dividing line that separated the Nazis from the citizens of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the 900 day Seige of Leningrad in which about a million Russians lost their lives. With the Germans approaching many of the treasures of the Palaces were buried wherever hiding places could be found and dug up when the war finally ended. The Soviet Government spent years and a considerable amount of money restoring and recreating exactly what had previously existed. And the effort goes on still.
It is getting late and my job as a tourist is never-ending so just let me add a note about my vast knowledge of Russians now that I’ve been here a whole day. They seem—personality-wise a lot like us. According to Sergei, Americans have the same sort of open casualness that Russians possess. More similar than the French or Brits for example. Don’t know if that’s true but it sort of felt that way today. Very comfortable.
More tomorrow. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it.
SUMMER WITH CATHERINE.